Dozens of men have accused former Miles City athletic trainer James “Doc” Jensen of sexual abuse dating back to when they were student-athletes in high school.
Jensen faces sentencing in federal court Tuesday for charges related to that abuse.
Present-day parents in the school district have mixed reactions on whether policy and staffing changes have created a safer school environment.
Attorney Dan Rice attended high school in the 1990s, when Jensen was still a trainer in Miles City. He says he remembers some of the things his current clients tell him about.
“It was pretty well-known that he would stay there and watch everyone showers, and it was weird,” says Rice.
Rice represents 32 men who have accused Jensen of sexually molesting them as young boys. Their civil suit alleges that Custer County District High School knew of the abuse but was negligent and let Jensen go with a warning in 1997.
The school district has denied responsibility in the case and its attorneys declined to comment to YPR News.
In addition to damages, Rice and his clients are asking the district to make a number of policy changes. The school district claims in legal documents it has already made many of those changes organically over time.
Rice says now only certified athletic trainers are allowed to provide athletic training services and only medical doctors conduct physicals.
“It’s a tough dynamic, and I do think that the school is actively trying to improve what they’re doing for the safety of kids. But, certainly they’ve come a long ways,” he says.
The lawsuit also asks that the district “implement a policy that no staff members’ office allows for viewing of students while showering or changing clothes” and that the district train staff to identify and report cases of sexual, physical or psychological abuse.
Rice sends his own kids to school in the area and says he feels safe doing so.
“With the understanding that I ask them a lot more questions than I probably would have or did before some of this stuff came to light,” he adds.
Other parents also say they feel safe with the current school administration.
Jeremy Harms is active in organizing school sports, both in youth football and wrestling, and his kids are also enrolled in the sports program.
Over pizza downtown, he says he feels like the situation with Jensen was an isolated incident, and he trusts the current leadership.
“You know it’s a shame that it happened, but the new administration now I feel is trying to take the steps to make sure our kids are safe,” says Harms.
He also points out that, yes, it’s the same school district, but it’s a whole different staff.
“I don’t feel like they should be punished, because it’s not gonna affect the school, it’s gonna affect our kids, it's gonna affect the school district itself, the education in Miles City,” says Harms.
He says he’s stressed to his kids that they should tell him and other adults if anything is being done to them that makes them uncomfortable.
Miles City Youth Services Librarian Hannah Nash has had a similar conversation with her kids.
Over her lunch break, she says she’s proud to say her kids attend public school in Miles City. At the same time, she says she’d support an update to school policy.
“We can always do better. We can always have better policies. We can always have better best practices. We can always make sure that we are putting the safety of children first,” says Nash.
The school district’s sexual harassment policy online was reviewed in 2013 and is close in language to other schools’ policies.
Nash says she hasn’t seen the community hold a town hall to discuss the revelations surrounding Jensen.
However, there is evidence of discussions happening elsewhere.
Attorney Dan Rice says high-profile cases like this one raise awareness about cases of child abuse and grooming.
“I do think that this case has done a lot of good and is doing a lot of good and will continue to do a lot of good,” says Rice.
Rice believes that awareness helps better protect his and others’ kids.
Following the revelations about Jensen, the Montana legislature passed a bill that gets rid of the civil liability statute of limitations in childhood sexual abuse cases.
Currently, Jensen has several cases against him.
The plaintiff’s civil case will be in court in 2020. A state case on child pornography charges will be heard in August, and Jensen is being sentenced for coercion and enticement in federal court Tuesday in Billings.